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German film maker Fritz Schumann captures the lives of the Japanese Yamabushi monks in his stunning short documentary film, Mountain Monks. Once a forbidden religion, the practicing holy men in northern Japan follow a combination of Shinto, Buddhism, Animism, and Daoism, with the aim to pursue enlightenment by reconnecting with nature. Schumann’s film follows them as they walk barefoot through rivers, meditate under waterfalls, and spend nights on mountaintops. Schumann reveals, “They walk into the forest to die and be born again.”
The film opens with one of the Yamabushi explaining, “No matter how heavy the rain falls, or how strong the wind blows, we Yamabushi climb up Mt.Gassan, go down to Mt. Yudono, walk barefoot in a river and enter waterfalls.” Clad in white robes, the group is filmed trekking through a snow-covered forest, on the path to find one of the region’s isolated ancient shrines.
The Yamabushi’s teachings of Shugendō were first established 1,400 years ago and peaked in popularity during the 17th century when Yamabushi visited around 90% of all villages in northern Japan. Their mystical tradition has a unique place in Japanese spirituality, and many believe that the Yamabushi have supernatural powers. Today, there are only a few dedicated monks still practicing Shugendō. However, they often organize pilgrimages and endurance tests for anyone who wants to shed the stress of modern life and immerse themselves in nature.
Watch the documentary below and find more of Schumann’s work on Vimeo.